Parrots are excellent problem solvers and are incredibly social creatures, so it may not be unusual if you have ever felt like your parrot has outsmarted you on one or two occasions.
With a feathery friend who can communicate their thoughts and feelings to you, make jokes, and play around with you, it is clear that parrots are very intelligent.
With all of this in mind, you could have already realized that the term “bird-brain” as an insult couldn’t be farther from the truth.
But the question is, just how smart are parrots?
And are parrots smarter than humans?
The answer to this question is… mostly no, but parrots intelligence is actually much closer to a human’s than you might expect. In fact, in certain areas, human and parrot brains are remarkably similar, and in specific tasks parrots can actually outperform human children.
This article will discuss the ways that parrot and human brains are similar and why parrots’ brains can allow them to seem as though they are as smart as we are sometimes.
As well it will discuss how parrots compare to human’s with intelligence tests, and exactly what kind of tasks parrots are actually smarter at than human children.
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How do we know that parrots aren’t quite as smart as humans?
It’s actually very difficult to compare parrot and human intelligence because our brains are designed to do very different things.
Intelligence is often defined in human terms and is seen as the ability to learn and apply knowledge, the ability to understand new or challenging situations and the ability to think abstractly.
But in parrots, and any animals, intelligence is actually much harder to identify.
But there are some areas of intelligence where parrots are just as smart as humans, and others where they are smarter.
Luckily parrots are quite the capable little creatures and can complete some of the exact same tests that human’s take in order to rank intelligence.
These tests include the mirror test, which is the ability to recognize yourself in a mirror and is often used as the main measure of intelligence and self-awareness.
Other tests include using different colored shapes to see if the subject, parrot or human, understands object manipulation, such as changes in the shape, similar and different shapes, and to see if they understand quantity or even count.
How do parrots score against humans on intelligence tests?
Parrots are very intelligent animals and they are famous for passing the mirror test with flying colors.
Parrots have shown excellent cognitive abilities including being able to differentiate that they are an individual and have control over their behavior.
Self-awareness is the biggest test of intelligence.
If you have ever given your parrot a mirror or brought them in front of one, you probably have seen how your parrot responds to seeing themselves.
Parrots will inspect their reflection and look at parts of their bodies in the mirror that they can’t usually see, showing that they truly understand they are looking at themselves.
Parrots are known to play around in front of the mirror as well, twirling and posing in funny ways in order to examine their own movements in the mirror.
These behaviours indicate the self-awareness of a highly intelligent species.
In the mirror test, human children only start showing signs of self-recognition at about 12 months and so parrots have comparable intelligence.
With problem and puzzle solving tests parrots can pass on the same level as human children as old as five years old!
Parrots are able to understand cause and effect, identify and name various objects, sometimes up to 50 in a test, they know different colours, and can even count.
Parrots also can understand the concepts of “different” and “same,” which human children can struggle with until they are older.
Parrots can communicate their desires, they can add and subtract, and amazingly, they have even shown the ability to understand the concept of zero, which human children often cannot do until they are about three or four years old.
The concept of zero is related to object permanence, which is the idea that objects exist even if you can’t see them.
Humans are not actually born with this understanding but learn it around 2 years old.
A young parrot named Griffin was tested on object permanence and by only 21 weeks old he showed an understanding that if an object was removed from his sight it was still there.
Griffin was also very good at a game you can try with your own parrot called the “shell game.”
In the “shell game” you show your parrot an item and then hide it in a box that your parrot can open.
Later you put the item in the box without your parrot seeing.
If they open the box to check if the item is there, then they have proven that they learned and that they understand logic, just as Griffin proved to researchers.
There have even been studies done of cockatoos that have shown that they can make and use their own tools.
African Grey parrots, known as the Einstein of parrots, can learn a rather impressive number of human words and even use them in context to communicate with us.
In fact, the African Grey can perform some of the intelligence at levels beyond that of 5-year-old humans, and therefore parrots are actually smarter than humans at a certain point in life.
With all of this in mind, the results of intelligence tests tell us that many parrots are just as smart as human children, especially African Grey’s and in some cases even smarter.
It is only when children pass the age of five and their brains continue to develop that they become smarter than parrots.
How do parrot and human brains differ?
Compared to parrots’, humans obviously ended up with bigger brains, more brain cells and more cognitive abilities, including language.
Yet, parrots actually have much bigger brains than other birds and have more communication skill that resemble the human ability to communicate, which is why parrots can talk to us.
Parrot communication with us often goes beyond just mimicking human language, as African Greys have shown that they can learn a rather impressive number of human words and even use them in context to talk to us.
When looking at the differences between human and parrot brains there are many things that humans can do that parrots cannot, but there are also things that parrots can do that humans can’t.
One of these areas is flight navigation.
Though parrots’ brains are small they are very powerful.
Parrots are actually separated from us by 300 million years of evolution, which is quite a lot!
Because of this their brains are totally different than ours, yet there are some areas where our brains are quite similar.
How are parrot and human brains surprisingly similar?
As any parrot owner knows, a parrot’s brain is highly developed and competent, and in areas like language, social relationships, problem-solving and adaptability they are very similar to humans.
The fact that parrots have distinct and identifiable personalities makes them very different from other animals, and their ability to be social and interact with humans means that their brains are smarter than you might think, and more similar to ours.
Many different studies have tried to figure out why and how parrots can be so different from humans, but also so similar when it comes to intelligence.
It is now believed that parrots genes have played a role in their brain development.
Parrot genes are very similar to the genes that evolved to give humans our large brains.
Parrots have a neural circuit that is very similar to that found in humans and is likely the source of their intelligence.
This neural circuit is a large region in the brain that acts as an information superhighway between the two main areas of the brain, exactly as human brains are set up.
As well, parrots have evolved to have a large area that connects the cortex and the cerebellum, which is also similar to humans.
The cortex controls thinking and information processing while the cerebellum controls motor functions, coordination and balance.
Together both of these allow for parrots to have more complex behavior than other animals, and behavior that we recognize as quite human.
All of this means that the genes that create a parrot’s brain and its development are the same as those found in humans.
So even though we clearly evolved very differently, our brains actually evolved similarly, just at different times.
Next time your parrot says something funny to you, communicates clearly, or even mimics you, remember that though parrots and humans may seem quite different, it turns out that our intelligence isn’t so different after all.